The Great Irish Famine

Famines motivate people. In multiple posts, about the Little Ice Age, The Black Death, and the ineffectiveness of walled cities, famine played a role in motivating mankind. The Black Death would have been less effective if it hadn’t been coupled with a famine, the Little Ice Age created many famines, including the Great Famine of France that lead to the French Revolution, and it motivated people in the Middle Ages to tunnel under the walls of Paris, London, and Moscow in search of food and buyers of goods. It also played a significant role in immigration to the US and Canada in the 1840s.

Some years, it rains an excessive amount in Ireland. If 1816 can be titled the “Year Without a Summer,” then 1845 can be titled the “Year it Wouldn’t Stop Raining on Ireland.” Too much rain can be as bad as too little rain and the Great Irish Famine is a prime example of why crop diversification and a little less rain can make a huge difference to survival.

Most people will know the Great Irish Famine as the Great Potato Famine. For the record, Ireland is great at growing potatoes. I mean absolutely fantastic. Potatoes grow better in Ireland than most crops. And potatoes have more vitamin C than any fruit. Potatoes were staples on ships because they prevented scurvy and as long as they aren’t exposed to too much water or sun, they last a long time.

Not only are potatoes loaded with vitamin C, they are a very hearty food. A little potato can go a long way towards daily calorie intakes and keeping up energy levels. The Irish grew a lot of potatoes. And as with most deadly situations, a perfect storm occurred to create the Great Irish Famine.

Too much rain fell in spring and early summer of 1945. Leading to a disease known as Late Blight to develop on the potato crop. Late Blight is caused by a type of mold. It destroys the leaves of the plants and infects the edible roots and tubers of the plants, causing them to rot in the ground.

Late Blight also affects sweet potatoes, onions, beets, and rutabaga, not just potatoes. Unfortunately, these are the crops that grow best in Ireland. Because it’s frustrating to put effort into crops that won’t grow in rocky soil, there wasn’t a lot of crop diversity in Ireland in the 1800s. Meaning nearly all crops were root vegetables like potatoes and onions. The rains stirred up a specific type of mold. Mold that would attack the majority of the crops planted in Ireland, wiping out almost the entire crop for 1845.

1846 would see less rain, but the mold that caused Late Blight was still alive and well within the soil and the crops of 1846 were also devastated by Late Blight. By 1847, Ireland could not import enough food to make up for the crop failures and Irish people were starting to peel the bark off trees and pull up grass by the handfuls, because you eat anything you possibly can during a famine, even if it’s tree bark and grass (which aren’t terribly nutritious for humans because we can’t digest most of it).

It also had a tremendous impact on livestock, as most livestock had supplemental diets that included the ruined crops and couldn’t stomach crops tainted by Late Blight.

This left the people of Ireland with two options; stay in Ireland and try to tough it out or immigrate. Nearly a million Irish died of starvation and starvation related diseases. Approximately 2 million Irish decided to flee Ireland and try their luck somewhere else.

In total, the population of Ireland dropped by 20 to 25% during the 2 years of blighted crops and the 5 years that followed it. Birth rates in 1847 were only a fraction of what they had been in 1843. We also mention the number that died or fled, but rarely discuss how it affected the regrowth of the population. In 1847, there was only about 1/6th the number of births in Ireland than of 1844. Meaning another couple million were lost simply because they weren’t born, because a population can only grow so fast with traditional breeding methods.

Only 3 times in “modern” history (post Fall of Rome) do we see this significant of a population drop in a single country; during the 1300s & 1400s Black Plague Pandemic when nearly 30% of England died of plague and starvation, and the 35% population drop of the Soviet Union during WWII (the Russian Population has yet to recover, despite it being more than 70 years – the population of Russia today is less than it was in 1920 and Stalin is as much to blame as WWII). And the Great Irish Famine of 1845-1846.

By 1855, there were more Irish people born in the US, Canada, India, and Australia, than in Ireland. It would be the 1870s before the Irish population would reach the same growth it had experienced in 1844. On a side note, the Irish blamed the English for the Great Irish Famine, proving tensions between Ireland and England went back way further than the political maneuverings of the 1920s (in 1921, the majority of Ireland which had been a part of the UK succeeded from their English rulers – Ireland and England have been wrangling for control of Ireland since the early 1600s).

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